Academic Articles

Purposefully going into the Unknown: Preparing mental health practitioners for the VUCA world

Apr 28, 2020 | By Lauren Martin
Purposefully going into the Unknown: Preparing mental health practitioners for the VUCA world

Higher Education Institutions need to think about how they could better assist in preparing professional and non-professional graduates for the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) helping field environment. The helping field, for both professionals and non-professionals, has devastating mental health effects on the helper in society.

Mental health professionals, such as psychologists, counsellors and social workers, report high levels of burnout, compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma, anxiety, helplessness, despair, nightmares, flashbacks, emotional and social withdrawal. The non-professionals in the helping field, like psychology graduates, are also at risk of mental health challenges because they enter the helping field with even less professional training to assist them to navigate and thrive in the VUCA environment.

What is the Mental Health VUCA Environment?

Higher Education is being challenged to reflect on their responsibility in equipping mental health graduates with the necessary soft skills to thrive in a VUCA environment. Students in mental health programmes, who pursue professional or non-professional careers in the helping field, require particular soft skill development in order to assist them to cope with the demands of the mental health field.

  • There is an increased need for graduates who are able to provide healing, support and empowerment to the community, despite the reality of poverty, high stress rates, elevated crime rates, unemployment and lack of resources.
  • The mental health environment is portrayed as fragmented, understaffed and dealing with a myriad of community health challenges.
  • Despite the difficulty in gathering mental health statistics in SA, there is an elevated, ever-increasing, high prevalence of substance abuse, addiction, malnutrition, psychiatric disorders, suicides and trauma-related problems.

The mental health VUCA environment highlights the need for graduates who are prepared, equipped and willing to work in challenging circumstances. However, teaching students how to cope with expected discomfort or equipping students to willingly experience discomfort is not well documented.

What are forward thinking organizations doing to teach students to embrace and thrive in discomfort?

  • Importance of Soft skills: Organisations have recognised the need for the inclusion of soft skills in mental health programmes that aid students to embrace discomfort while striving toward meaningful goals. Soft skills such as Psychological Flexibility (PF), grit, reduction in impulsivity, resilience, growth mindset and mental toughness, all relate to the ability to persevere, toward meaningful outcomes despite discomfort. These soft skills equip mental health graduates to purposefully go into the unknown and thrive.
  • Embedding soft skills in mental health programmes: Organizations are ensuring that soft skills are intertwined in how they teach, design curriculums, conduct classrooms, provide support, grade and provide feedback. If we are building soft skills into the learning process of developing mental health professionals, they graduate with these refined soft skills tailored to their profession already.  

Student development is often amplified when individuals are challenged in a safe environment, such as a well-managed classroom. The classroom provides an opportunity to assist students to cultivate the necessary soft skills to sit in discomfort, work within discomfort and willingly embrace discomfort. Students who can develop these soft skills during their studies are better equipped to deal with their own mental health challenges while also caring for a broken world.

Written by: Lauren Martin Head of Teaching and Learning (Pretoria Campus) 

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